At the end of every year, our columnist Aaron Yap wraps up his likes, dislikes and learnings from TV’s shifting media hellscape.
Jeez, what a stinking hot mess. As 2017 thankfully draws to a close, reflecting on the year that’s been for TV has become quite the exercise in existential soul-searching – to couch it in the most dramatic possible way. The game has changed, and nothing will ever be the same again.
If The Leftovers capped the first half of the year with an outstanding series finale – promising peace and serenity in a period of tumult and chaos – Twin Peaks: The Return, with its uncompromisingly surreal, reality-contorting abstractions, nailed the on-going zeitgeist I feel like we’re really living in.
The soundtrack I couldn’t stop hearing in my head? The blood-curdling screams of Charlyne Yi.
That deep tremble of uncertainty filtered through to the medium’s increasing blurring of lines. Earlier this year, a film festival screening of Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl got me wondering about the future of television. Are those boundaries between TV and film dissolving? Does it even matter?
Just recently Film Twitter erupted when British movie rag Sight and Sound sought to place Twin Peaks: The Return in the number two spot of their Top 20 best-of-year list. It’s a highly contentious subject, but deep down I can’t help be amused that S&S did that (critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s Twitter thread on the subject is worth a read).
Meanwhile, the everyday reality of sexual harassment was thrust into our newsfeeds, the dam bursting in October when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein turned into a pariah overnight following a raft of sexual misconduct allegations.
Now with peak TV mainstays such as Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Louis C.K. (Louie), Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent) and plenty more occupying that same space, we’re forced to process the idea that many of these creative geniuses – ones who’ve provided us with hours of blissful bingeing – are extremely flawed and/or garbage human beings in real life.
I’d be remiss not to mention the earth-quaking twist of Disney devouring 21st Century Fox, a mind-bogglingly monumental deal which will have repercussions in the TV world. It’s the Mighty Mouse throwing down the gauntlet, mobilising to wage war against that other unstoppable beast Netflix – who are continuing to make Hollywood sweat with their disruptions to traditional distribution models.
The industry’s in shake-up mode, and for us pundits dropping our collective jaws at each of 2017’s brutal, absurd developments, it might be easier to imagine that we’re all simply digital simulations in a Black Mirror episode.
Regardless, there was an embarrassment of great, great TV. The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace gave us a pair of timely, well-crafted Margaret Atwood adaptations. Big Little Lies was way smarter than its trashy soap veneer let on. The Good Place remains one of the most startlingly inventive sitcoms around. David Simon’s return to TV with The Deuce was top-notch adult drama, displaying all his usual storytelling elan and layered characterisations.
Mindhunter spun the musty crime procedural into stylish, captivating directions. I’m enjoying Kiefer Sutherland in the cornball Designated Survivor so much that if Jack Bauer never came back I’d actually be okay with it. “Crisis on Earth X”, the four-part DC crossover of Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, managed to miles better than Justice League.
And will everyone just please watch Pamela Adlon’s Better Things?
Closer to home, Married at First Sight NZ floored me in ways neither I – nor anyone for that matter – were prepared for. The show has been covered on The Spinoff with exhaustive and rib-tickling precision, so I won’t rehash the particulars. As someone who’s plowed through all 28 episodes (or was it 29?) of the previous epic season of MAFS Australia, and as such should really have been braced for a train wreck, I was surprised to find MAFSNZ ascended to new levels of concentrated cringe.
The fact that everything unspooled in a shorter time frame made the whole experience of witnessing these lethally incompatible relationships crumble more intense. It was breathtaking, awful, despairing – a perfectly soul-destroying analogue to the year’s apocalyptic mood.
One thread of hope I did latch onto was the shifting tide in Asian representation on TV. It was especially heartening to see Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park walk away from Hawaii Five-0 when negotiations with CBS to seek salary parity proved fruitless. John Cho taking the lead in the second season of The Exorcist felt huge. Charlyne Yi calling out David Cross (Arrested Development) over a racist encounter, and Netflix’s Iron Fist getting hauled over the coals for whitewashing? Worthy of fist pumps.
Most inspiring was Ivan Mok’s tremendous performance in The Americans as a teenage Vietnamese refugee who’s spying with the Jennings. It’s uncommon and refreshing to have an Asian character on an American show treated with such a full sense of purpose, respect and level-headedness, instead of the one-note comic relief and goofy sidekick types we’re used to. This might be a small triumph in the scheme of things – there’s still a long way to go yet for representation and diversity – but a triumph nonetheless. Right now I’ll take them where I can.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.